EDINBURGH have embarked on a decent run of form that has seen them win their last three games, but they will nonetheless be underdogs at the Stadio Monigo today against a much-improved Benetton side. The team from Treviso have lost their last two games, but the latter defeat, against Toulon, was only by a point, and they are clearly a more formidable challenge than they once were. They proved as much earlier in the season when they hit back from an early deficit to win at Myreside, and Edinburgh coach Richard Cockerill expects a tough contest.
“We physically need to be very good, which we certainly have been last week, and our mentality was very good in Russia,” he said, referring to the Challenge Cup win over Krasny Yar. “We’ve got to make sure we do the same in Treviso. Last week they were unlucky to lose to a very good Toulon side, so we’ve got it all to do, to be fair.
“We’ve prepared as well as we can, we’ve picked the best side available, now we’ve got to go and play with the same intent and accuracy that we’ve played with in the last couple of weeks. We’ve taken some confidence from that.”
Cockerill has made eight changes from the starting line-up in Moscow, three in the backs: Dougie Fife and Jason Harries replace Damien Hoyland and Tom Brown on the wings, and Phil Burleigh provides extra experience at centre, taking over from Junior Rasolea. Up front, Darryl Marfo and Stuart McInally return to the front row, Ben Toolis and new captain Fraser McKenzie are back at lock, and Hamish Watson returns at openside.
On the bench, Italian international Michele Rizzo returns from suspension after Edinburgh agreed an extension of his loan with Leicester Tigers. “We’re hoping to keep Micky for the foreseeable future,” explained the coach, who had initially secured the services of the loosehead prop for just six weeks. “With Allan Dell and Alasdair Dickinson being injured and Rory Sutherland coming back – he’s playing club rugby again this weekend – we need that cover.
“And it looks like Darryl Marfo will be away with the national team too. So with three looseheads missing from the squad and Sutherland coming back, Micky’s going to be important for us if we manage to keep that loan deal going. It’s a little bit open-ended: if they need him back they can recall him; until that time, Micky will stay with us.”
Cockerill has been pleased by the progress made by Marfo, who joined from Bath in the summer and was named this week in Gregor Townsend’s squad for the Autumn Tests. “He’s worked very hard and he’s playing at the very top end of his abilities. He scrums very well, he’s very committed and circumstances are he’ll potentially get an opportunity at Test level. Delighted for him in that regard.
“He’s a very good set-piece player and he won’t let anyone down. If he gets his opportunity it’ll be very interesting to see how he copes at that level. Historically he’s a squad player in the Premiership. He’s come here and taken an opportunity – through circumstances he’ll have the chance to play at the very highest level.”
New casualties are never too far away, alas, but as things stand Edinburgh’s injury list is clearing up considerably across the squad, not just at loosehead. For example, Jason Tovey has recovered quickly from a hyperextension of the knee – “he’s made a miraculous recovery”, Cockerill said – to keep his place at stand-off. Ross Ford is close to being available again, Jamie Ritchie should be over his foot injury in time to return against the Ospreys next Saturday, and Magnus Bradbury should also return in that game, having got over the off-field head injury which led to his being stripped of the captaincy.
The Bradbury affair and the unrelated suspension of John Hardie have put unwanted pressure on the Edinburgh squad recently, but Cockerill has been pleased by their resilience. “The lads are under the spotlight a bit after the last couple of weeks and those things. They’re working hard and we can only deal with what we’re doing on the field and if we can get positive results, that portrays a positive environment.
“The boys have just got on with their jobs as they do; we’ve just got to move on. We dealt with Magnus and in due course the situation with John will be sorted out and we’ll get on with it.”
Edinburgh (v Benetton in Treviso, Saturday, 2pm BST): B Kinghorn; D Fife, J Johnstone, P Burleigh, J Harries; J Tovey, S Hidalgo-Clyne; D Marfo, S McInally, W Nel, F McKenzie, B Toolis, L Crosbie, H Watson, C du Preez. Substitutes: N Cochrane, M Rizzo, M McCallum, G Gilchrist, L Carmichael, N Fowles, G Bryce, C Dean.
Benetton: J Hayward, A Esposito, I Brex, A Sgarbi, L Sperandio; I McKinley, T Tebaldi; F Zani, L Bigi, S Ferrari, M Fuser, D Budd, F Minto, A Steyn, R Barbieri. Substitutes: T Baravalle, C Traore, T Pasquali, F Ruzza, A Zanni, S Negri, G Bronzini, T Benvenuti.